HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut was prepped in advance for St. John’s initially by Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun on Monday.
Now comes the hard part.
The Huskies are on their own as they prepare for top-ranked Texas on Saturday in Storrs, a game that could be a season-changing event for Connecticut if it could pull off the upset.
Connecticut raced past St. John’s 75-59 to end a three-game losing streak Wednesday night at the XL Center in Hartford. But that was almost expected, even with the distraction of Calhoun on an indefinite medical leave.
“I don’t think it was different at all,’’ said Connecticut’s Kemba Walker of playing for associate head coach George Blaney instead of Calhoun. “Texas is going to be huge for us. We’ve got coach Blaney on our side. I wish Calhoun was better, but we’ve got coach and he’ll do a great job and get us prepared.’’
Blaney was adamant prior to the game, as was Connecticut athletic director Jeff Hathaway, that Calhoun was taking his doctor’s advice to stay away from the team and rest at home. Hathaway said that Calhoun’s medical condition wasn’t career-ending, but that he wouldn’t return until he was completely healthy or rather cleared by his physician.
Yet, this is still his team, and Blaney made sure to let everyone know that he’s the caretaker. Blaney said that he will communicate with Calhoun in preparation for Texas.
“It’ll go either way, we’ll talk every day,’’ Blaney said. “Either he’ll call me or I’ll call him, but we’ll talk.’’
But that doesn’t mean Blaney doesn’t already have ideas of how to compete against Texas’ size and depth up front. Blaney went with three guards – Walker, Jerome Dyson and Donnell Beverly – with Stanley Robinson at the four and Gavin Edwards at the five. It’s a smaller, quicker lineup.
“I’m not afraid to play teams with three guards and I’m not afraid to put Stanley at the four,’’ Blaney said. “He can get nine rebounds against anybody. We’ll mix and match.’’
Blaney and the players were quick to point out how much they needed this win to stop the bleeding of the losing streak. Had they fallen to St. John’s with Texas pending, the Huskies’ season could have spun out of control. Blaney cited Georgetown and Notre Dame of a year ago, teams that got on a losing skid and couldn’t recover. The Huskies could easily be 5-1 in the Big East had the last call not gone against them in the loss to Cincinnati, or had they not given up a monster-double digit lead (19 in the first half, 15 at halftime) at Georgetown.
“I told the team before the game that coach Calhoun is the best in the country at preparing you to face this kind of adversity,’’ Blaney said. “We had to get ourselves off the floor after three straight losses (at Georgetown, Pitt, at Michigan). We had to come out fighting and punch someone in the face.’’
That’s why Calhoun’s absence wasn’t the deciding factor Wednesday. This was not a Huskies’ team that was winning this game for Calhoun. They had to win this for themselves to grab their season back and ensure relevance from this point forward.
“We had to stop it, to have a good feeling,’’ Dyson said. “We’ve still got to take all the things (Calhoun) has told us in the past and bring it into this game (against Texas). Our focus won’t be any different.’’